'Chandrayaan-3's success shows that India is serious global power': Christina Korp

Korp is astronaut manager and founder of SPACE for a Better World

50-Barack-Obama-Christina-Korp-and-Buzz-Aldrin In great company: Christina Korp with Barack Obama (left) and Buzz Aldrin on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in 2009.

Christina Korp’s journey has been as unpredictable as a space shuttle’s. A singer-songwriter, she was a member of her family band before charting a solo career. Somewhere along the way, she ran a record label and production company. Then one fine day, she responded to a newspaper ad to work for astronaut Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin of the Apollo 11 mission that first landed humans on the moon. And today, she is known as the ‘astronaut wrangler’. Based in Florida in the United States, she produced the last five galas at the Kennedy Space Center celebrating Apollo 11. An astronaut manager, she now works with the likes of Apollo 16 moonwalker Charles Duke and NASA astronaut Nicole Stott. She founded SPACE For a Better World in 2020 to highlight the ways space benefits all life on earth and how it could be the key to achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. In an exclusive interaction with THE WEEK, she talks about the Chandrayaan-3 mission and what it means for India and the world. Excerpts:

To see India succeed will inspire more nations to believe that they, too, can be part of the future of innovation through space exploration.

Q What does the success of Chandrayaan-3 mean for India and ISRO?

A It positions India and ISRO as a world leader in not only space exploration but as a leader in global innovation. Getting to the moon is hard. So hard that only the Americans have sent humans there and that was over 50 years ago. And only a handful of nations have ever succeeded in landing a rover or robot on the moon. Recently, a Japanese commercial space company Ispace attempted to land a rover on the moon. They successfully got it into the lunar orbit but then it crashed on the surface of the moon, losing the entire payload. The same thing happened with a small private Israeli company, SpaceIL, a few years ago. Only three countries [before India] have ever succeeded in landing rovers on the moon―the US, Russia and China. So it is a big deal.

Q How does Chandrayaan-3’s success change India’s image in the global space arena?

A It shows the world that India is a serious global power. Going to the moon is not only about proving we can get there. The future of clean energy production relies on a long-term presence on the moon. NASA and the European Space Agency are cooperating on the Artemis missions to create a long-term settlement. China has long-term plans of a lunar base to mine the ice. All of these nations are going not just for water to survive, but also to look at the possibility of making rocket fuel by separating hydrogen and oxygen. The long-term vision is to create a lunar depot in the lunar orbit, which will enable longer duration missions to Mars and beyond.

Q How will it inspire other space nations?

A It will spur innovation in other parts of the world to consider investing in space. People expect the Americans to do it. But to see India succeed will inspire more nations from all over the world to believe that they, too, can be part of the future of innovation through space exploration. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, it inspired the whole world. India has a chance to do the same, but especially in a way that inspires young people with access to much more information than [earlier].

Q How do you think ISRO managed this mission with a small budget?

A The cost of launch has come down significantly all over the world, primarily because SpaceX has changed the model with the success of the Falcon 9, which has affected launch companies all over the world and forced them to bring costs down. However, with India having its own rocket launch capability, it offers a significant cost reduction than if it had to get it from another launch provider like SpaceX, United Launch Alliance or CNES (French space agency). There is much technical talent in India, so keeping all production and launch within the country saves costs on a major scale. It will be a game-changer for the region if companies wanting to send payloads to the moon have more confidence in ISRO’s capabilities.

Q What are the challenges associated with lunar landings?

A The biggest challenges are usually money and public support. As mentioned before, landing on the moon is not so easy. If it was, then many more countries would have attempted it. However, because it is the next destination for the major players of the world, all eyes are set on solving the challenges of getting back to the moon. It is the new space race. America will continue to lead the way in partnership with the ESA and countries in the west. Russia is unlikely to play a major role in this current space race.

They are low on funds and as long as the war with Ukraine continues, they are too distracted to focus on expanding outward into space. China is the main competitor to the US. They have money, political support, the will and determination. They are only lacking in experience and expertise.

The other big factor is cost. It is an expensive endeavour to go to the moon and it needs a very long-term vision to succeed. This is difficult with political cycles dictating how funds are allocated in most countries. Public support can be challenging, too. Many people ask why spend money on space with so many problems on earth. But the countries who are focused on the bigger picture see the value of this commitment. This is why ISRO’s success, also at such a low budget, might encourage more countries to see the value of investing in space for the long term.

Q Do you think big-budget space missions have higher chances of success compared with small-budget ones?

A Having a bigger budget always helps. More money means you can hire experts, use the best materials and more. Having more money is never a bad thing when it comes to something as difficult as space exploration. But that being said, if you can succeed with less of a budget, it will also influence everything else. Ultimately, everyone wants the cost of launch to come down so that we can do more in space.

Q Have you met Neil Armstrong?

A I had the opportunity of meeting Neil Armstrong several times since I used to work with different astronauts. Unlike other Apollo astronauts, he was not very regular at different astronaut events. He was always very quiet and did not have a lot to say.

Q What about Buzz Aldrin?

A I have worked a lot more with Buzz Aldrin than with Neil Armstrong. I worked with Aldrin for more than a decade and was with him for almost every day during that time. Aldrin had divorced his wife when my daughter was five days old in 2011, and so he became my full-time responsibility for a long time. Aldrin and I went everywhere together. I even travelled with Aldrin to the South Pole in December 2016 where he got sick with pulmonary oedema and we were evacuated. He spent many a Christmas and Easter at my house. He became a part of my family. In 2018 and 2019, he slowed down a bit and did not do many appearances. I finished the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in July 2019. I then started my own company and developed contacts with many astronauts, including female astronauts. I have a zero gravity flight coming up in October 2023 with Charlie Duke, the 10th man on the moon.

Q What qualities do you like in astronauts?

A The quality that I appreciate in astronauts is that they are curious and they share their desire to explore. Shared humanity is something that is very special among astronauts; they emphasise on the fact that we are just humans when we leave the earth. That is why we have peaceful cooperation in space. We need to take care of each other in space, and every astronaut understands that. Before I started working with Aldrin, I knew nothing about space, though I was fascinated about space and about stars…. Because I did not come from a space background and I treated these astronauts as regular guys, they accepted me very quickly into their fraternity.

Q You met president Barack Obama with Buzz Aldrin.

A A year and a half after I started working for Aldrin, there was this trip with the Apollo 11 crew to Washington, DC to meet president Obama (as they do with every president) for the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. NASA wanted me to go with them and I was the only non-family member of the Apollo 11 crew to meet president Obama. I just wished for a handshake with the president. When I walked to the Oval Office, Aldrin was there with his wife, son and daughter-in-law. Aldrin then introduced me to president Obama and said, “This is my mission director Christina Korp.” I smiled, because Aldrin had started calling me his mission director. Obama called Aldrin and his family for a picture. Post that, to my surprise, president Obama called me and said, “Mission director, you also come here for a photo. We always put women in the middle because they are better looking.”

Q Any other interesting thing about Aldrin?

A I travelled with Aldrin regularly and had trips to Nepal, Mongolia, the South Pole, Australia and South America. We had a similar desire to explore the world. I went to Burj Khalifa in Dubai with Aldrin. When we were at the top, he was fascinated by the view. For a guy who had been to the moon, he was fascinated by looking at the earth from atop the Burj Khalifa. And, I would never get the window seat on flights, as Aldrin always wanted to sit by the window. He liked looking at the clouds and the landscape. His curiosity was like a kid’s.